By Pat Launer
‘The Prince of L.A.’ is thoroughly rhymed
And SDSU’s been ‘Nickel and Dimed ,’
Suspense is what ‘Dancing with Demons’ has,
While ‘Dear Ella’ teems with all that jazz.
THE SHOW: ‘The Prince of L.A. ,” a verse drama written by and starring Dakin Matthews, award-winning actor/playwright/dramaturge and long-time associate artist at the Old Globe
THE SCOOP: A verse drama?? If you didn’t know, you’d never know. The text is seamlessly smooth and its lyrical language is wonderfully, naturally presented. The story is provocative – though it may not be what you’d expect in terms of ‘church scandal.’
THE STORY: The Prince of the title is Matthew Mark Luke Cardinal John (Matthews), but it also refers to the So-Cal application of the famously cynical 16th century Machiavellian guide to political power, which Matthews carries onstage at the outset. He glides in and out of the action, reminding us that he and his fellow characters are ‘fictional’ and that ‘it’s only a play’ (the writer/protagonist, methinks, doth protest too much). Sometimes his asides are cute and clever; after awhile, they wear thin. The crux of the matter is a nun who’s ratting on a bishop, accusing him of financial (and possibly sexual) improprieties. The Bishop is the Cardinal’s old friend. The nun wants justice and public accounting. The Cardinal’s assistant might want the nun. And Father Kieran wants revenge. It’s a bit of a mystery, and a fascinating glimpse of clergy at leisure – in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, drinking, and revealing details of their sexual fantasies and experiences. Ultimately, it’s all about power, faith and fallibility. Though it could definitely be trimmed down, there are elements of suspense that sustain interest. And the performances are excellent.
THE PLAYERS: Matthews is a thoroughly engaging, if enigmatic centerpiece, who grapples (perhaps only momentarily) with how to handle the crisis without impacting his plans for a new cathedral. As the Bishop, Michael Winters is so wonderfully natural and unaffected, you’d swear he just walked in off the street. Henri Lubatti and Julia Fletcher are fine as the strait-laced younger Brother and Sister. Andrew Matthews (son of the writer), is charmingly earnest, damaged and scheming, though his Irish accent is quite inconsistent.
THE PRODUCTION : The set design by Robin Sanford Roberts is attractively evocative, with its suggestions of high ceilings and stained glass windows, beautifully lit by Leigh Allen. Anne McNaughton (Matthews’ wife) has directed with unfussy aplomb. It’s hard not to think of that other Church-scandal drama, “Doubt,” which is, when all is said and done, a better play. But Matthews has achieved something stimulating and enlightening, and equally disturbing.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe’ Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through October 30.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
EBONY AND IVORY
THE SHOW: ‘Dancing with Demons,” a drama by Donald T. Evans
THE SCOOP: It isn’t all black and white – or is it? Plenty of suspense and intensity – in the play and performances.
THE STORY: On a rainy night, a young white man picks up a black hitchhiker and brings him back to his cluttered, smelly apartment. He tries to befriend the former boxer, and entices him to be a photographic subject. Many enticements, drugs, confessions, threats and emotional outbursts later, things get out of hand – with unexpected results. There are a few twists and turns along the way, as well as several unresolved or inconsistent plot-points (and a few prop snafus as well).
THE PLAYERS and PRODUCTION : This tense and intense two-hander is marvelously enacted by L.A. actor Mister Jones, excellent as the attractive, energetic boxer who’s gone downhill but is trying to claw his way up, and local actor Tony Rosa as the creepily weird Jerry, who has secrets a-plenty and a totally warped little mind. Both demonstrate a wide range of passion and dispassion, and under Gaffney’s assured direction, they take us along on their stomach-churning emotional roller-coaster ride. Ted Crittenden has designed a wonderfully detailed, cramped, messy apartment set (props by Espes Gallerdo ).
THE LOCATION: Common Ground @6th @ Penn Theatre, through October 16.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SAGE OF MINIMUM WAGE
THE SHOW: ‘Nickel and Dimed : On (Not) Getting By in America ,” based on the best-selling book by social critic Barbara Ehrenreich , adapted for the stage by Joan Holden.
THE SCOOP: A variable cast, but a very strong center in a play with a commendable social conscience.
THE STORY: As an assignment from Harper’s magazine, the highly skilled and highly paid Ehrenreich went undercover, posing as an unskilled worker, to see if she could survive on minimum wage. She couldn’t. Forced to take two jobs and still unable to afford both food and rent, Ehrenreich published her exposé on the plight of the working poor. And with Ehrenreich herself at the centerstage , it makes a potent seriocomic, sociopolitical play. Ehrenreich’s character works as a waitress in Florida , a maid and nursing home caretaker in Maine , and a Minneapolis Wal-Mart employee (euphemistically called Mall-Mart in the play). She suffers all the indignities of the scratching by in the underbelly of American society.
THE PLAYERS: SDSU director/faculty member Peter Cirino keeps the cast of 15 busy; there’s a lot of activity, and not all of it is believable. But Dana Pacheco is outstanding as Barbara, who is exhausted by her experience. Melanie Sutherlin and Brittany Fenison do good work as fellow fast-food servers, Rosalie Celestial is excellent as a pregnant, overextended, rule-following house cleaner, and Jerry Zatarain , Jr. is fine as an officious Mall-Mart manager. Otherwise, there’s a fair amount of overacting, mugging and caricatures. These kids have obviously never seen an Alzheimer’s or nursing home patient. But hopefully, they got some of the messages of the play.
THE PRODUCTION : the show gets off to a slow start; there’s a pre-show series of video interviews of the local working poor, answering questions like How many hours do you work? What makes a good boss? etc . The tape-loop becomes repetitive after the second or third time through. Then there’s a long sequence behind a scrim before the action actually begins. The set, designed by Jungah Han, captures the various settings with its monochromatic (bronze/tan) layers of signs, ads and financial tote-ups and come-ons. The lighting (Brian Shevelenko ) is heavy on shaky follow-spots. The costumes (Jennifer Hanson) are spot-on. All the elements of the play are well presented, but the political edge is missing. There’s no engagement of the audience (at the end of the L.A. production, people were asked if they had others who cleaned their houses and what they paid, etc. And after the performance, there were flyers available from several social service organizations). Like the book, the play should be a call to arms, a consciousness raising that makes you want to do something, anything, differently, to help those on whose backs our society literally rests. But sadly, that element was completely missing here; the piece had a distancing, not an engaging or inspiring effect. But the work is important, and is worth seeing for that.
THE LOCATION: At SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre, through October 9. Extra bonus: Barbara Ehrenreich will make an appearance on the campus (Montezuma Hall) on Thurs. Nov. 3 at 4pm. Her book was required reading for all incoming students at SDSU this year.
QUEEN OF COOL
THE SHOW: ‘Dear Ella, First Lady of Song” created and directed by Calvin Manson, founder/artistic director of Ira Aldridge Repertory Players. Musical direction by Dennis Dawson and Vick Kemp
THE SCOOP: Manson continues his cycle of plays that spotlight the great female jazz/blues singers. The format is more concert than narrative, and there’s too much of that. The band is terrific, though, as are some of the singers, who alternate with Ella’s songs and style.
THE STORY: No story to speak of. And not even that much about Ella’s life. The framing device is three people writing “Dear Ella” notes, recalling how/when they’d first seen or heard her. There’s some narrative in the first act, though it’s not chronological, and not always easy to follow. There’s no storytelling in the second, just 16 songs (12 in the first act, which should, by all theater legend, be longer). The 16 “scenes” aren’t always clearly distinguished, though some represent specific concerts (dates not always specified).
THE PLAYERS: Instead of a solo performance (as for “An Evenin ’ with Billie”), Manson has cast three women and a man. The guy is the adorably agile singer/dancer Manolito Lopez, who should definitely be groomed for musical theater. What a terrific stage presence – an irresistible smile and great moves! The three women split the Ella songbook, which included songs such as “Don’t Mean a Thing,” A- Tisket , a- Tasket ; “ Summertime ,” Fascinatin ’ Rhythm, “Misty,” “Cry Me a River” and so many more. Ayanna Hobson, who’d done such a knockout job as Ella in IARP’s last production, “Raisin’ the Rent,” reportedly “excused herself from the role to let someone whose voice sounds more like Ella’s” to take it on. Kimberly Jackson Littleton has the pure, crystalline clarity of Ella’s most pellucid numbers. But Hobson has the moxie and charisma, and the amazing scatting ability that steals the show. Charmen Jackson contributes some sweet singing of her own. The band – Dennis Dawson superb on sax, Vick Kemp on keyboards, D.J. Jackson hoppin’ and boppin’ on drums and Tony Monumand on electric bass, got a solo addition in the second act – classical guitarist Nemanja Bounodic . He was great in a lush rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” but he sort of came out of nowhere. Just goes to show, though. It takes three singers (maybe more) to equal one Ella, Mama Jazz, the First Lady of Song.
THE PRODUCTION : The only African American dinner theater in San Diego produces shows that are closer to cabaret than musical. On opening night, before the show began, Manson presented the Ira Aldridge Awards to Joan P. Owens, a faithful repeat theatergoer, and to Judith Harris and Dr. Robert Singer, for their “significant contribution to sustaining African American theater in San Diego .”
The bare-bones production features a platform and very small playing space (which limits Lopez’ ability to really strut his stuff). The night I was there, the miking, once again, was problematic, and the singers ultimately abandoned the headset mics . It often seems that Manson gets so overwhelmed with the wealth of source material, that he tries to include too much. This show should be trimmed by 20 minutes at least. And Hobson should re-inhabit Ella.
THE LOCATION: Ira Aldridge Players at Caesar’s Cafe, through October 30.
….The 7th annual Trolley Dances was a big success judging by the numbers. The new Grantville/SDSU trolley route was fun to ride and (at SDSU, at least) amazing to see. Some of the dances were staged in huge spaces (a large open field at Grantville Station, the cavernous SDSU station) which kept onlookers at a distance, both physically and emotionally. Highlights included choreographer Rebecca Bryant’s use of a chain-link fence outside the Grantville Station, while “ bla-bla ” corporate text taken directly from entrepreneurial sources (including the White House) was read, to very humorous if unnerving effect. Both of host/producer/artistic director Jean Isaacs’ pieces were acmes of the event. Her elegiac piece at the starkly affecting Aztec sculpture on the SDSU campus was lovely and touching. Her finale, a “Maypole Dance” at the Grantville station, was colorful, whimsical and highly energetic. Highly attractive costumes for both, too (Charlotte Devaux Shields). Except for those pieces, the event has been more exciting and moving in years past. But it’s always unique and shouldn’t be missed.
….The dedication of the newly (gorgeously) renovated Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre was a dramatic event. Acting Mayor Toni Atkins said, “I don’t think I am exaggerating to say that this theater will be the most important catalyst for the revitalization of North Park that has happened in our time.” It’s also a great boon to the performing arts community; the state-of-the-art theater, lovingly restored to its 1928 luster and glory, will be home to many other groups in addition to its resident managers, Lyric Opera San Diego. Other residents will include Malashock Dance, the San Diego Men’s Chorus, California Ballet, Classics for Kids, the Cinema Society of San Diego, the Women’s Repertory Theatre, Mainly Mozart and the La Jolla Music Society. To demonstrate some of the impressive capability of the stage, Leon Natker and developer Bud Fisher made a dramatic entrance, amid smoke, flashing lights and strains of “Thus Spake Zarathustra ,” rising slowly from the pit on a platform. The ubiquitous Craig Noel was on hand, the only local who’d been at the opening of the original movie theater in 1928. A large crowd of patrons, donors, neighbors and artsmakers helped create a festive celebration. The project has been in the works for 15 years, and everyone was aptly proud of the accomplishment. Lyric Opera SD formally inaugurates the space with their opening production of “The Mikado” (Oct. 14-30).
….Get thee to a funnery : The San Diego Shakespeare Society’s annual Celebrity Sonnet Presentations — Monday, October 24 (unfortunately, the same night as the next Carlsbad Playreaders ’ reading – of Neil LaBute’s dark, disturbing “bash.” Celebs due for the sonnet reading include actors Kandis Chappell, Rosina Reynolds, Ron Choularton, TJ Johnson, Seema Sueko, Dakin Matthews and Joey Landwehr . Then there’s The Cheshire Singers, not to mention KPBS’ Martha Barnette , director Darko Tresnjak, choreographer Javier Velasco, author Alan Russell, pastor Drv . Dr. Mikel Taxer , educators Diane Sinor and Jack Winans , and student actors Rebecca and Daniel Myers (ages 9 and 12). The emcee is yours truly, with stage management by David Cohen. Don’t miss it! Monday, Oct. 24 at 7pm. Proceeds to benefit the Shakespeare Society Student Festival (due in 2006-7). www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org .
… In its return visit to San Diego October 18-30 (Civic Theatre, courtesy of Broadway San Diego), “Mamma Mia!” features an alumna of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater, Laura Ware. Over 20 million people around the world have seen the addictive ABBA musical, which calls itself “the world’s number one musical,” with “more productions playing internationally than any other musical.”
…Speaking of SDSU MFA alums, Merideth Clark is still in New York , performing in the musical, “Rock Show,” and playing electric bass in a rock band called “Group Therapy” before she heads to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to become the Ghost of Christmas Past.
…Ironically, another local performer relocated to New York is off to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for “A Christmas Carol.” Small world. Jimmy Saba spent the summer having a “life-changing” experience as part of the Directors Lab at Lincoln Center . He was also teaching at Wagner College before Alabama called. Jimmy promises he’ll be back in SD for a brief stay in late December.
… Big Apple actor Jovial Kemp brings his one-man show, “A New Yawk Life,” to San Diego (Oct. 6-10, Adams Ave Studio). He calls it “a hilarious and touching piece” in which he plays 37 different characters who help him explore his “love/hate relationship” with his hometown. He recently completed successful runs of the show in L.A. , Santa Barbara and Noo Yawk itself.
.. Also coming up this month: the latest Actors Alliance reading, “Tiger at the Gates,” Jean Giraudoux’s timely black comedy about Hector, Helen of Troy , war-mongering and mob hysteria (translated by Christopher Fry). Directed by former Globe associate director Brendon Fox, the all-star cast includes Jennifer Austin, Richard Baird, Robin Christ, Lisel Gorell-Getz, Jason Heil , Cris O’Bryon, Maruc Overton, Alex Sandie , Brennan Taylor, Brandon Walker, Tim West and others. one night only, October 17, 7pm at Lamb’s Players Theatre.
REQUIESCAT IN PACE ….
Only 60 years old, and he didn’t even live to see Broadway’s Virginia Theatre renamed in his honor later this month. August Wilson died this week, and it’s a huge loss for the American theater. But he completed his mission, just in the nick of time. As he was battling liver cancer, he finished the last of his epic series, chronicling each decade of the 20th century in the lives of African Americans. Most of the plays were set in his hometown of Pittsburgh . Some of them were unforgettable: the crusty centerpiece of “Fences,” first played by James Earl Jones, locally magnificent as portrayed by Antonio “TJ” Johnson. And that ‘juba dance’ at the end of the first act of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (seen here at the Globe in 1988 and at Octad-One in 1992) remain permanently embedded in my theater lover’s mind. Wilson was a giant of the American theater, and I expect that his legacy will live on for a long time to come. Era by era, he set down the influence of slavery on subsequent generations. “When the sins of our fathers visit us, we do not have to play host,” he said. In Joe Turner, one character tells another, “You’re a man who lost his song.” August Wilson found his song – and others will sing it for years to come.
…A dramatist takes his leave, and a dancer enters. Eveoke Dance Theatre founder/choreographer Gina Angelique and her husband Chris Hall heralded their latest production – Isadora Luna, born true to her name, during a full moon.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks );
(For full reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
“Dancing with Demons” – dark, intense and suspenseful, with two marvelous performances.
Common Ground @6th @ Penn Theatre, through October 16.
“The Prince of L.A. ” – a provocative peek behind the curtain of secrecy that shrouds the Catholic Church; an intriguing verse play, well written, directed and acted.
The Old Globe’ Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through October 30.
“ Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” – like visiting with (theater) royalty. At 72, Chita still has the style, grace and ‘attitude’ she was, apparently, born with. In her singing/dancing narrative, she’s warm and lovable, gracious and irresistible. See her before she heads back to Broadway.
At the Old Globe, EXTENDED through October 30.
“In Arabia , We’d All Be Kings” – dark, intense, depressing… but beautifully performed.
At Lynx Theatre Performance Space, through October 23.
“Da Kink in my Hair” – high energy, great talent, gut-wrenching stories interspersed with singing, dancing and African drumming. This U.S. premiere needs a more pointed story-line, but it’s a foot-tappin’, hair-raisin’ experience.
At San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 16.
“Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star” – if you haven’t had your fill of menopausal musicals, this is great for a date (the guys remind us it’s called MENopause ). Excellent performances , some cute/clever bits and songs.
At The Theatre in Old Town , through January 1.
Make like a tree – and put on your autumnal colors. Then go and perk up a theater near you!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.